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Zucker Leaves NBC; Klein Dismissed From CNN; Interview With Lara Logan

Aired September 26, 2010 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Television is a volatile business. No breaking news banner there. And we got a vivid reminder on Friday with big shakeups at two networks.

Jeff Zucker, the one-time hotshot producer at "The Today Show," announced he'll be leaving as chief executive of NBC Universal, pushed out by the incoming bosses at Comcast.

And CNN president Jon Klein was abruptly dismissed with Ken Jautz, who now runs the sister network, HLN, replacing him. What do these ousters mean in a tough time for the industry?

Nine years after the war began, Afghanistan remains a dangerous place for journalists. CBS' Lara Logan came under hostile fire during a reporting trip to the country. She'll be here to tell us about it and whether the coverage is capturing the level of violence.

There was a time when running for office meant dealing with journalists, but not anymore, at least for some Republican candidates. Christine O'Donnell is the latest to announce on Fox News that she won't talk to the national media in her Delaware Senate race. Why are these candidates ducking questions?

Plus, you may have heard that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are coming to town to hold a big rally. Colbert actually testified on the Hill this week. Is this comedic fodder, street theater, or cutting- edge cultural criticism? Dick Cavett on satire and social change.

I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.

Network presidents are very much like baseball managers. Job security isn't part of the package. Jeff Zucker told me he knew he might be shown the door when cable giant Comcast agreed to buy NBC from General Electric, but that didn't make him any less emotional about being booted from the place he spent the last quarter of a century.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Jeff Zucker, the CEO of NBC Universal, a former executive producer of this broadcast and "The Today Show," announced he'll be leaving his post pending Comcast assuming control of the company with regulatory approval. He is a 24-year veteran of the company, or, as he put it in a note to all of us employees today, that would also be all his entire adult life.

KURTZ (voice-over): From his early days as Katie Couric's producer, Zucker kept the news division strong, managing the transitions from Couric to Meredith Vieira; from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams; from the late Tim Russert to David Gregory. But the entertainment division, once the home of "Friends" and "Seinfeld," slid into fourth place for six straight years, and Zucker made a huge blunder in moving Jay Leno to prime time and replacing him with Conan O'Brien.

Jon Klein didn't sugarcoat what happened to him at CNN. "People in our business get shot. I got shot," he told "New York" magazine. Klein's six-year tenure running CNN meant a doubling down on news.

"CROSSFIRE" was out, Lou Dobbs was out, and seasoned journalists such as Campbell Brown, John King, and Candy Crowley were in. But nighttime ratings sharply declined, especially for Larry King.

Klein made moves to fix prime time by hiring Kathleen Parker, Eliot Spitzer and Piers Morgan. But on Friday, his time ran out.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about what these dramatic moves mean for NBC and CNN, in New York, Marisa Guthrie, senior reporting for "Broadcasting & Cable" magazine. In Tampa, Eric Deggans, media critic for "The St. Petersburg Times." And here in Washington, Rome Hartman, executive producer of BBC America's "BBC World News America."

And Rome Hartman, are you feeling their pain? I mean, you got sacked as executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" six months after Katie Couric's debut. It can be a brutal business.

ROME HARTMAN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "BBC WORLD NEWS AMERICA": I was looking at my iPhone on Friday and I thought, boy, this is not a good day to be a middle-aged white male media executive. I was tempted to turn the phone off and hide under the desk.

Sure, I mean, nobody likes to get fired. I certainly didn't, and I'm sure that these fellows don't either.

It shouldn't obscure the fact that both these guys, Jon and Jeff, were in the jobs probably longer than anybody should reasonably expect in this day and age. This is a very volatile, very tough business, and it's a particularly tough time in a tough business. This is not the last act for either one of them.

KURTZ: Marisa Guthrie, Zucker, as I mentioned, wasn't really surprised that the axe fell because of Comcast spending billions to take over NBC. But it's got to be an anxious time for people at NBC, and NBC News in particular, because Comcast is coming in, and their long-time leader now leaving "30 Rock."

MARISA GUTHRIE, "BROADCASTING & CABLE" MAGAZINE: Yes. And, you know, Jeff was never going to survive the merger. I mean, Comcast wants to come in, they want to impose their own executive culture on the company. And, you know, as you pointed out in your introduction, Jeff is blamed for a lot of blunders at the broadcast network.

And even though Comcast is getting NBC because of the cable networks, the broadcast network is still the public face, if you will, of the entire company, the television portion of that company. So he was never going to survive this merger.

KURTZ: Right, although he gave indications that he thought he might. But I guess that he knew that he wasn't.

Eric Deggans, what is Jeff Zucker's legacy in terms of the news edition, but also in terms of primetime entertainment?

ERIC DEGGANS, MEDIA CRITIC, "ST. PETERSBURG TIMES": Well, Jeff Zucker's legacy I think is rather complicated, because the news division was relatively successful and enjoyed a lot of successful transitions, as you pointed out. But there were a lot of missteps in the prime time and the entertainment side of the network, everything from failing to develop a successor to "Seinfeld" and "Friends," to installing Ben Silverman as head of entertainment for the network and seeing him fail spectacularly, and then having the Jay Leno debacle not only hobble Jay Leno's career as the face of late night, but destroy Conan O'Brien's career as the future of late night at NBC.

And so you just had this long string. And he also alienated I think the creative community in Los Angeles by installing Jay Leno at 10:00 across the board and getting rid of so many 10:00 p.m. dramas that producers and writers and actors had hoped to work on. So he had a lot of missteps there.

KURTZ: Well, that was in part a cost-cutting move.

HARTMAN: Let's just remember though that Jeff Zucker, as Brian Williams said in that setup piece, never worked anyplace else. He came as an intern to the Olympics division right out of school.

He was the executive producer of "The Today Show" at the age of 26, and he reinvented morning television. He set "The Today Show" up for this sort of incredible dominance that it still enjoys today. This is a guy that at age of 45, has done more than most people do in 50 years of work, and he has got a lot more to come.

KURTZ: But you first underscored that he was a news guy, which I think it's not an accident that "Nightly News" and "The Today Show" have remained number one. But when he went out to Hollywood when he had the entertainment job, before he became the CEO of the entire network, a lot of people thought he was kind of a fish out of water.

HARTMAN: I guess. I mean, you know --

KURTZ: It's hard picking hit sitcoms.

HARTMAN: It's hard picking hit sitcoms. It's hard making hit news shows, too.

KURTZ: That's true.

HARTMAN: And I think this is a remarkably talented guy. Who knows what the next chapter is going to be?

KURTZ: I'm sure he will be employed in some capacity.

Marisa Guthrie, you don't think that Zucker could have survived even if NBC as a network was not in fourth place?

GUTHRIE: No, I don't, because I think when a company comes in and they're taking a controlling interest of you, they want to put their own person at the head of the company. I mean, a lot of those second tier executives will survive. Certainly, the news division is very strong, and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts noted, you know, when the merger and pending merger was announced that NBC News is the crown jewel of the broadcast network.

But they want to impose their own culture. They also -- so either they're going to put Steve Burke in that job or they're going to make a big hire, a Jeffrey Katzenberg, someone that will make a big splash.

KURTZ: Steve Burke is a top Comcast executive.


KURTZ: Let me turn now to the situation at CNN, and I'll stay with you, Marisa.

When Jon Klein was dismissed on Friday -- and the timing, I think, was a surprise to a lot of people, including here at CNN, because he had just finished revamping the much-criticized primetime lineup by bringing in Eliot Spitzer -- that show with Kathleen Parker debuts a week from tomorrow -- and Piers Morgan, who will succeed Larry King in the year.

So what do you make of the timing?

GUTHRIE: Well, I think they want -- look, this Eliot Spitzer hire has come with a lot of controversy, because Eliot has a certain kind of baggage, if you will. So I think that --

KURTZ: That's the understatement of the morning.


KURTZ: He was forced to resign of governor of New York for patronizing prostitutes.

GUTHRIE: So that's a controversial hire.

Now, obviously, Jon Klein's then bosses, current bosses at CNN, signed off on it, or it wouldn't be premiering October 4th. But I think they realized that it is risky, even though Eliot Spitzer does have that sort of, you know, invaluable political insight at a time when we're heading into the midterm elections. And I'm sure Klein made that pitch when he was -- when he wanted to hire him.

But it is still seen as quite controversial. He's also trying to take CNN away from its down-the-middle, "just the facts, ma'am" news, you know, clarion roots. And that's going to be controversial, too.

So, look, if it doesn't work, they can blame it on Jon Klein, and he's already gone.

KURTZ: That did occur to me. Let me bring in Eric Deggans.

The new boss at CNN will be Ken Jautz. Currently, he has been running HLN, formerly Headline News, and running the whole business die of CNN, by the way. At HLN, he hired people like Glenn Beck, who, of course, later went to Fox, Nancy Grace, Joy Behar. So it's a more opinionated network, some people say a little more tabloid.

What could that mean for CNN?

DEGGANS: Well, I think that's the concern. Everybody wants to know, what is he going to do with CNN, and what is he going to do with these shows that he didn't really develop but now has to shepherd to success?

I would say that I think that Jon Klein's departure is the one that's sort of unexpected, and that I don't know that we know enough about. If you lost confidence in someone like Jon, why let them establish the shows in your prime time and then get rid of him? It seems like an odd move to happen right now.

Both these men, Jeff Zucker and Jon Klein, were men that people in the industry speculated might lose their jobs long before now because they had had such troublesome tenures. In Jon's case, CNN has been doing badly in prime time for quite a while. And people have been wondering, what is CNN going to do to shake things up? And then we her it's hiring Eliot Spitzer, Kathleen Parker and Piers Morgan, which is very controversial, and some people are asking questions about whether or not it could work.

KURTZ: Right.

Of course, Rome Hartman, I mean, Ken Jautz is a news guy. He's a former foreign correspondent for CNN and for the AP.

He said on Friday, "It's critical for the entire business of CNN worldwide that we remain nonpartisan."

And I would say to Marisa's point, that even if you have a liberal and a conservative on the same show -- I mean, CNN had "CROSSFIRE" for years -- you're still not being partisan, but those shows now have to go up against O'Reilly on Fox and Olbermann on MSNBC, and that is tough.

HARTMAN: Yes, it is. He also said though on Friday or Saturday that he wants what CNN has in prime time to be engaging, compelling, and, yes, fun now and then. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing in that. That's the imperative for all of us, is to make what we do in broadcasting as engaging and interesting and valuable to the audience as possible.

KURTZ: Particularly if you're going to stick with a straight news approach.

HARTMAN: That's right.

KURTZ: You've got to get people to watch.

HARTMAN: Yes, no question.

KURTZ: And in CNN's early days, like, well, the news is the star and the anchors were just kind of readers.


KURTZ: I mean, they weren't, but now, you know, it's a much more competitive environment if you don't have outsized personality.

HARTMAN: CNN is not going to take a partisan route. CNN is not going to espouse a particular end of the political spectrum.

But there's obviously an imperative to have compelling content, compelling programs, and compelling personalities. Nobody should apologize for that. And I think that's the -- it is a balancing act, and it's probably tougher for CNN with its sort of bedrock of editorial integrity than it is for some other organizations. But it's something that I think just has to happen. The public is not more interested in --

DEGGANS: Howie --

KURTZ: Just briefly.

HARTMAN: -- in partisan views.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Eric.

DEGGANS: Howie, can I break in for a minute? I would say that CNN at this point reminds me a little bit of MSNBC back in 2003, when we saw them struggling for an identity in the wake of 9/11 and trying to compete against Fox News. And they were trying a lot of different things that didn't necessarily seem to work out. They tried --

KURTZ: And we know what happened next. They moved --

DEGGANS: -- Michael Savage. They tried Jesse Ventura.

KURTZ: Yes, I remember.

DEGGANS: And I think CNN is kind of in that mode right now, and it will be interesting to see what they try next.

KURTZ: All right. Eric Deggans, Marisa Guthrie, Rome Hartman, thanks very much for stopping by this morning.

When we come back, CBS's Lara Logan just back from Afghanistan with a harrowing tale of how she came under hostile fire near the Pakistan border.

And later, a conversation with Dick Cavett.


KURTZ: Afghanistan exploded back into the news this week not because of any military battle, but because of the battle inside the White House, as revealed by Bob Woodward's forthcoming back. But the tales of President Obama debating war policy with his top lieutenants take place half a world away from the actual fighting, and journalists face the same dangers as the soldiers they cover.

Lara Logan is just back from a harrowing trip where she and her cameraman came under hostile fire and faced some very close calls.


LARA LOGAN, CBS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The fight you will see is brutal. The intensity unlike anything we've seen in nine years of covering this war. U.S. soldiers looked in a never-ending battle with an enemy that just keeps coming.


KURTZ: Logan tells the tale tonight on "60 Minutes" at 7:00 Eastern, or just after football. And CBS' chief foreign affairs correspondent joins me now.


If you had to judge the state of the war by the combat duty that you saw, would you say it's not going well?

LOGAN: Yes, you'd have to say that. I mean, if you're on a forward-operating base where the soldier can't move more than three miles in any direction because they're surrounded by Taliban villages, and you go to one base like that after another, and you're hit everywhere you go, you're attacked not just out on patrol in the mountains, but you're attacked in the base over and over again, I mean, that's more fighting than I've ever seen. And I haven't missed -- every year of this war I've been there.

KURTZ: And you've also been in Iraq. Is it more fighting even compared to Iraq, more dangerous?

LOGAN: It's a different fight. It's a totally different fight. It's just as dangerous.

But I did a piece in 2003, in Afghanistan, when everyone was only looking at Iraq. And the soldier at the end of that piece said, "I want to tell a guy coming here to replace me that he can die just as fast here as the guy in Iraq can." You know, and that's still true today.

KURTZ: Take me through what happened in that incident when you and your cameraman came under enemy fire.

LOGAN: Well, this is symbolic of what the soldiers are trying to do. I mean, they're looked in these tiny, little places. They have a small amount of combat power in spite of the surge. And they've got to get through Taliban territory to get to the villages to try and turn them.

KURTZ: To try to persuade people to turn against the Taliban?

LOGAN: That's right. That's right.

KURTZ: So just getting there is the challenge?

LOGAN: Just getting there. And these are villages that in 2001, '02, '03, '04, '05, there was no Taliban there. You know what I mean? This is ground that we were --

KURTZ: This is in what part of the country?

LOGAN: This is -- well, we were in the east, along the Pakistani border, very specifically, because the border is for us the heart of the problem there. You've got all these foreign fighters that are constantly pouring over the border. And as the soldiers say, literally, as fast as they kill them, they keep coming. They kill 150 in one battle; two weeks later they're back.

KURTZ: So come back to what happened with you.

LOGAN: Well, in this village, they had been invited there, and they were hoping to build a relationship, what's really the core of the U.S. strategy. And, of course, they killed 60 Taliban there a few weeks before, and when they got to the village, it was very obvious that they were not welcome.

I mean, it was a really eerie feeling. And of course, as happens, on the way back they were attacked, and they were ambushed right at this moment when the vehicle was stuck (ph).

KURTZ: You keep saying "they." You were there.


KURTZ: So what did you do when the gunfire erupted?

LOGAN: Well, we were on the ground because they were trying to pull that vehicle off a huge rock. So we were right in what's called the "Kill Zone," which is -- I mean, it's obvious. All the other soldier are in armored vehicles, you're the only ones on the ground. That's where they're going to hit first.

And they opened up with about 15 heavy machineguns, armor- piercing RPG rounds -- you know, rocket-propelled grenades -- mortars, rocket fire. I mean, it was a complex attack, so it was a multiple weapons system, all different kinds of weapons, two different mountaintops that they were firing from. And it took -- I mean, it took around 30 minutes to literally fight their way through that ambush with everything they had.

KURTZ: And what was going through your mind while this was happening?

LOGAN: You know, I really thought -- I mean, always there's a moment when you think, oh, my God, I just don't want to die. I just couldn't believe how long it was just going on and on and on, and the intensity of firepower. And then every second it's something else.

You know, you know that you're taking heavy machineguns. You know you can hear the rocket-propelled grenades coming in. Then you hear the mortar fire, and you're just thinking, oh, my God, when is this going to end?

KURTZ: Were the soldiers doing anything extra to protect you because you were a journalist?

LOGAN: You know, they always do. I mean, there's no way around that. It just is. The first person that they seem to think about, the soldier nearest to you, the first person he think about is getting you to safety.

KURTZ: I know you're a veteran correspondent. I know you've been in war zones your whole professional life. I have to ask you, why do you subject yourself to these risks? You now have two little children at home.

LOGAN: I know. It's the worst question anyone can ask you, is if you're a war junkie, do you do this for adrenaline? Because anyone who's had babies, any mother, knows how hard it is to leave your children.

KURTZ: What's your answer to that question?

LOGAN: It's -- I'm absolutely, absolutely committed to this. It's my -- I see this as my responsibility, that if you're going to send soldiers to war in other people's lands, you have a responsibility for the people of this country and for the people around the world to know what it is that they're being subjected to, and to know how that's going. I mean, if you don't have people out there reporting on this, then anyone can say anything they like about it, and you don't know whether it's true or not.

KURTZ: CBS News, "60 Minutes" is debuting a new Web show today after "60 Minutes." It's called "overtime," which (INAUDIBLE).

So I watched the tape that you made about the very subject we're talking about. And a woman asked you -- who was interviewing you -- said that the makeup lady had told her that she had to put some makeup on your legs to cover the bruises.


KURTZ: You got bruises on this trip?

LOGAN: On this firefight. My hands were bleeding. I mean, you know, it's -- surviving a firefight is not an easy thing, even if you're untouched. I mean, there is a lot going on that you can never capture with cameras.

KURTZ: Do the fleeting pictures that we get of this war, when it makes it on to television, when we're not doing the midterm elections or witchcraft or Lindsay Lohan going back to jail, the articles we see in the newspapers, do these capture the level of danger and violence in Afghanistan?

LOGAN: I think they do. I mean, there are a number of journalists out there who are doing amazing work.

The problem is that they're just -- there isn't enough of it. It feels like because we're, you know, so many years into this, and because we're post-Iraq, that there's -- I don't know, that there's almost a kind of, like, America's sick of the wars and --

KURTZ: Well, people are tired of this war in particular.


KURTZ: And I think television executives are tired of this war. I mean, they have a responsibility to cover it, and as you say, many brave journalists are covering it. But it's not exactly the lead story.

LOGAN: I have wives of soldiers e-mailing me, calling me, saying, "Please, will you go and do something? Because my husband is out there and I can't find anything. I search every day for coverage and I can't find coverage of it."

KURTZ: And just as we finish, what was the reaction of the soldiers to having you along since they don't get that much media attention these days?

LOGAN: You know, this far into it, they know your work and they know what you can do. And they know that you're a person of integrity. And that counts more than anything. And they're very grateful to have people there who care.

KURTZ: Because otherwise they feel like they've kind of slid off the radar screen?

LOGAN: Oh, no question about it. It's not even feel like. They know they've slid off the radar otherwise. But they don't do it for that.

Soldiers are motivated by something else. It's hard for people outside to understand.

Yes, they're motivated by the guy next to them and bringing them home alive. But they truly believe in defending their nation, in defending their Constitution. And if they didn't believe that they were there to do the right thing, they wouldn't be there.

KURTZ: Lara Logan, we're glad you got back safely. Thanks for joining us.

Her piece airs tonight on CBS' "60 Minutes."

Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, Christine O'Donnell says she's done talking to the national media. And she's not alone. How do we cover Republican candidates who don't want to "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation"?

And later, Jon Stewart planning a big rally. Stephen Colbert testifying on the Hill. Is there seriousness wrapped in the satire? Who better to ask than Dick Cavett?


KURTZ: Politicians have been running against the press almost from the beginning of the republic. But now stiff-arming the press is emerging as the preferred strategy for some Republican candidates.

We talked last week about Christine O'Donnell, the surprise Tea Party winner in Delaware, abruptly canceling her appearance on two Sunday shows. With all these videos emerging about her comments on sex and evolution and witchcraft, O'Donnell says she's pulling the plug.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Governor Sarah Palin tweeted, and I thought she gave you some interesting advice, and I want to get your take on it. "Christine O'Donnell's strategy: time's limited. Use it to connect with local voter who you'll be serving versus appeasing national media seeking your destruction."

CHRISTINE O'DONNELL (R), U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE: I'm not going to do national media because this is my focus. Delaware is my focus and the local media is my focus.


KURTZ: She said this, by the way, in New York. So how did O'Donnell deal with the reporters back home who wanted to talk about her past tax problems? She answered one question. And then --


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ms. O'Donnell, I'm asking one question you promised you'd answer.

O'DONNELL: I did answer it.

TUCHMAN: No. About the rentals last year. Why were you paying rent money with campaign money?

O'DONNELL: I'm sorry. Not happening. TUCHMAN: Well, that was the one question I had.


KURTZ (voice-over): This is something of a pattern. Nevada candidate Sharron Angle said -- yes, on Fox News -- that she want the press to be her friend.

SHARRON ANGLE (R), U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE: We need to have the press be our friend.

KURTZ: And Angle has also beat a hasty retreat when confronted by local reporters.

But the same goes for California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who ducked out of her own news conference.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much, guys. Thank you very much, guys. Thank you.


KURTZ: So are these candidate right that they face a hostile press, and is their strategy viable?

Joining us now, Ana Marie Cox, Washington correspondent "GQ" magazine; and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at "National Review."

Ramesh Ponnuru, Christine O'Donnell went on the network morning shows the day after winning that primary, and she did fine. And she goes on "Hannity" and she's complaining about the liberal media.

When did taking questions from reporters become so scary?

RAMESH PONNURU, SR. EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, I think that there's sort of a twofold strategy here. One, I wouldn't underestimate the fact that -- actually, I'm not sure there is a whole lot of upside in getting Delaware voters from being on the national press, as opposed to other things that she can do. But the second --

KURTZ: Don't they get national television shows in Delaware?

PONNURU: She want to run against the elites and the press. So this is just part of her campaign strategy. And that's true of Sharon Angle, as well.

KURTZ: Now, Ana Marie, you could make a case perhaps that the reporters, if they had at her, they would just want to talk about witchcraft and masturbation, and all of these other subjects, and not the real issues.

ANA MARIE COX, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "GQ": Right. Well, I think that there's a case to be made for that. And also, I think I have to say, although my sympathies are with the Democratic Party generally, it's not like those candidate are really welcoming to the press either. I mean, everyone wants to run against the press. I mean, I think that people are picking and choose -- I mean, candidates of either stripe pick and choose where they're going to take their stand.

KURTZ: Well, they control access to the press. But to just go on and say I'm not going to talk about the national media -- not talk to the national media at all is a new one in terms --

COX: You're right. You're right, that is new. Usually they just don't just do it.

KURTZ: And they don't announce it.

COX: And they don't announce it. So this was a campaign strategy.

KURTZ: So that was --

PONNURU: They won't hold a press conference.

COX: Right. This is the strategy, to announce that you're running again the press. But I have a feeling that you're going to see that in a Democratic candidate, too. Like, progressives don't feel particularly beloved by the mainstream media either.

KURTZ: Absolutely.

COX: I think you can run as a progressive candidate against the mainstream media just as easily as you can run against a Tea Party candidate.

KURTZ: As you know, Bill Maher has been releasing tapes of Christine O'Donnell from his "Politically Incorrect" show back in the late 1990s. They did another one on Friday. Let's take a brief look.


O'DONNELL: You know what? Evolution is a myth.


O'DONNELL: And even Darwin himself -- yes. You know what?

MAHER: Have you ever looked at a monkey?

O'DONNELL: Well, then why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?


KURTZ: Now, look, we have a lot of fun with this, but evolution is a myth, homosexuality is an identity disorder, something else Christine O'Donnell said. Why isn't it fair, journalistically speaking, to ask her about these matters?

PONNURU: I don't think it's unfair to ask about them. I can -- KURTZ: But you're not particularly troubled if she doesn't want to talk to us?

PONNURU: Well, first of all, I don't think that it ought to be the focus, the obsessive focus of campaign coverage. It's not -- I think most of the stuff isn't directly relevant to anything she's going to be doing, particularly the witchcraft and masturbation stuff that we've been hearing from her.

Look, at the end of the day, I think that voters all across this country, by the end of the election season, they're going -- they are going to feel like they have seen and heard enough about these candidates. I'm not sure that people are not going to have enough information to make a judgment, whatever press strategies these people choose.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

COX: I also was going to say, like, I think this is something I remember talking about probably with you during the 2008 campaign. The mainstream media thinks of itself as the only way that candidates can get their message out, or the only way that voters can getting information about candidates. That is not true.

That used to be true. It's not true anymore. And there are lot of ways for voters to get information about candidates that bypass the mainstream media.

So I'm not saying that Christine O'Donnell is actually letting voters do that either, but we should probably not be thinking about she's saying she doesn't want to talk to the national media, therefore voters aren't going to getting information, but simply asking the question, are voters getting information? And I would actually like to say that that evolution thing to me is much more troubling than the witchcraft or masturbation or -- well, the homosexuality thing is bad, too.

But the evolution thing is -- you know, science policy is already in trouble in our country because people don't know about it. To have someone who's a serious candidate for national office saying stuff like that is really appalling.

KURTZ: I understand why in a Republican primary the strategy makes sense. In a general election, when you're trying to get Independent voters, I'm not so sure.

But these are mostly, Ramesh, inexperienced Tea Party candidates who have largely been insulated from the press in their careers, although O'Donnell obviously went on a lot of talk shows.


KURTZ: And they think that any kind of aggressive questioning, which I would say that all candidates get, think it's personal, think it's personal attacks. Sharron Angle says she wants to go on Fox News so she can just raise money. Is that wrong? Is it a misstep?

PONNURU: Well, I mean, you know, I think one thing you're seeing is that these Tea Party candidates, they're like Republicans, only more so. And so it's not surprising that they're taking the hostility to the press that's long characterized Republicans and taking it to a whole new level.

KURTZ: It's also the Sarah Palin strategy. She said Christine O'Donnell should speak to the country through Fox News. Forget about all those other outlets.

PONNURU: Right. Well, look, I mean, at some point, particularly if you want to be at the highest levels of American politics, you do have to have that comfort with the national press. And one of the things that's held Sarah Palin back was, of course, she didn't perform well.

KURTZ: And what I think is that you have to show that you can hit major league pitching. Dealing with the press, even when they're hostile, even when reporters are obnoxious, it's a test for candidates, and it's a test that some of these candidates increasingly are ducking.

Let me get in a break. When we come back, why did one moment go viral at CNBC's presidential town hall?



VELMA HART, CFO, AMVETS: Quite frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantel of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed where we are right now. Quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly -- is this my new reality?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, part of what we did over the last year and a half is to make sure that billions of dollars that were going to subsidize financial services industries under the federal student loan programs are now going to be going directly to students so that millions more students are going to be able to get loans and grants and scholarships to go to college.


KURTZ: Velma Hart of the Washington Veterans Group questioning the president on CNBC.

And Ana Marie Cox, why did television play that tape again and again?

COX: Well, her question was very, you know, compellingly posed. I think that that's the number one thing about it. And she herself sort of managed to sort of, like, get into one question I think a lot of the frustration that people who are voting for Obama felt. And then I can't speak to what news producers were thinking, but watching that clip just now, the disconnect between the passion of her question and the passionlessness of his answer, and how he seemed to not understand at all what she was really asking, which is, like, I want to be passionate about you again, I want to be able to defend you again, give me some hope, give me that passion, give me that energy that I felt when you were running, and he just goes into these answers that are very academic. You could sense the disappointment.

KURTZ: And did the way that Barack Obama gave a kind of programmatic answer in which he went through all the things his administration did, did that kind of reinforce the media portrayal of him?

PONNURU: Absolutely. I think this whole exchange illustrated a lot of the themes of this campaign.

We have heard a lot of talk about the enthusiasm gap, Republicans being more excited about voting than Democrats are. This was a walking, talking illustration of the enthusiasm gap.

She explained why she's exhausted, she's not enthusiastic. And do you think that that answer re-ignited any enthusiasm? I don't.

COX: Yes.

KURTZ: So it's not the substance of what he said, it's this whole -- and just briefly here, this whole question of does Obama show enough passion?

COX: And I think -- actually, I think the substance of what he said also was not on target to her question. Her question was, tell me why I should be passionate about you again.

KURTZ: She was asking for a personal answer.

COX: She was asking for a personal answer, and he gave a policy answer, which is -- I mean, it's a true answer, it's an answer to a portion of her question. But if I asked you, Howie, tell me why I should be excited about you, and you're like, "Well, last year I earned" -- it misses the point of my question. And that's the thing --

KURTZ: You always get personal answers.

I've got to get to a break.

Ramesh Ponnuru, Ana Marie Cox, thanks for joining us.

And up next, as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert focus on Washington, are they getting more serious or just going for laughs? Dick Cavett will be here in a moment.


KURTZ: How serious is Jon Stewart? When he announced his Washington rally for October 30th, he sounded like a man fed up with political and media loudmouths on both sides of the partisan divide, a man who wanted to restore sanity.


JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": Unfortunately, the conversation and process is controlled by the other 15 to 20 percent. You may know them as the people who believe that Obama is a secret Muslim planning a socialist takeover of America so he can force his radical black liberation Christianity down our throats, or that George Bush let 9/11 happen to help pad Dick Cheney's Halliburton stock portfolio.


KURTZ: But then his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert announced a counter-rally that made the whole thing feel like schtick.


STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": So, tonight, ladies and gentlemen, to fight Jon Stewart's creeping reasonableness, to restore truthiness, I am announcing my rally.

Nation, are you ready?


COLBERT: Good, because I am announcing it today (ph)!


KURTZ: Both men obviously mimicking or mocking Glenn Beck's big Lincoln Memorial gathering laugh month.

So, what does Stewart hope to gain from his moderate march, and will it boost or blemish his reputation as a cultural critic?

Joining us now from New York, Dick Cavett, the long-time late night talk show host and also writes a column for "The New York Times" Web site.

Dick Cavett, Jon Stewart has always been sharp-edged and political, and he loves to skewer those of us in the news business, who obviously need skewering. Is he pushing a little too hard for this Washington rally to be taken seriously?

DICK CAVETT, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK TIMES" WEB SITE: Well, I take this seriously. I think it's a swell idea comedically -- dreadful word -- and satirically. Those guys are my Laurel and Hardy and they both make me laugh.

The only thing I might criticize about Jon Stewart's idea is that it's hard for me to recall when we had sanity. In order to restore it, it has to be there.

You know, was it when we voted for Al Gore and got George Bush, "Mission Accomplished," being attacked by a country and going right back vigorously and attacking a different one? I'm trying to reach back to sanity, and if I reach back to my youth, I end up at the Army- McCarthy hearings and such things.

KURTZ: So you're wondering where that sanity ever existed.


KURTZ: But if the rally is just fun and games and makes for great TV clips, won't it be something of a letdown?

CAVETT: If it doesn't turn out to be funny you mean?

KURTZ: Yes. Well, or if it turns out to be just funny but not have any larger political point?

CAVETT: Well, that's a good point, because it leads to that congressman who was opposed to this and opposed to Colbert's brilliant appearance before the House by saying it would -- comedy would lower the tone of the House. Can you imagine -- how do you lower something that's at bottom to begin with? It's like saying I'm lowering the tone of "Hustler" magazine or something. It's just ridiculous.

I won't say his name, but it was Steve Cohen of Tennessee.

KURTZ: Well, you let that slip.

Since you mentioned it, let me go straight to the sound bite of Stephen Colbert. This was an immigration hearing in the House of Representatives. He was invited to be there. Not all the congresspersons -- they were not amused, let's put it that way. Let's roll the bite.


COLBERT: This is America. I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.


KURTZ: Now Dick, some people were questioning where this was the right forum for Colbert, some people were offended by his talk about Mexicans picking tomatoes.

CAVETT: Yes. Well, yes, there are some people who don't want to a sign in the store saying "Non-Mexican-picked tomatoes," I'm sure.

There are also a great number of people -- I don't know if you've ever noticed this because you're young -- who have no sense of humor. I don't want to break that news to you abruptly like that.

KURTZ: But some of them are on Capitol Hill, obviously.

CAVETT: And maybe the lady on Fox -- was it -- the other day about whom Stephen said she was so stunned by something, her hair almost moved.


CAVETT: You know the one I mean. But once a year somebody will tell me if I write something for something, you can't joke about this subject.

Now, this is not true. There's no subject you can't joke about. The joke may be bad --

KURTZ: Right.

CAVETT: -- but that there are subjects that humor must never touch would be news to Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift and the great Mort Sahl and -- who else?

KURTZ: A long history of satirists.

And Colbert did get serious later in his testimony. And look, the hearing got 1,000 times more attention than it would have had there not been Stephen Colbert there.

Now, you were a pretty big deal in network TV. Why didn't you ever hold a march on Washington?

CAVETT: I never thought of it. And also, I figured how would I top Woodstock, which I was a survivor of? I didn't go there, but I did a show that night with people from Woodstock. I wish I could find the trousers of Crosby, Stills and Nash, because he came to the show with mud on his trousers. And if you could put that mud on eBay, you wouldn't need a joke.

But, you know, this is a great day for satirists and comedy writers as we sit here now, because any day in which a homophobe preacher is told on by four succulent boys is a day to remember. And every comedy writer will be eager to get to his typewriter on Monday for that one.

KURTZ: But a serious subject of breaking news.

But just going back to your late-night television days, you were seen often as political. And, in fact, I have a little tape I want to play from the Nixon White House as President Richard M. Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, talking about Dick Cavett.




H.R. HALDEMAN, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: He's impossible. He loads every program automatically. He'll --

NIXON: Nothing you can do about it, obviously?

HALDEMAN: We've complained bitterly about the Cavett shows.

NIXON: Well, is there any way we can screw him? That's what I mean. There must be ways.

HALDEMAN: We've been trying to.


KURTZ: "We complained bitterly about the Cavett shows." "Well," says Nixon, "is there any way we can screw him?"

Your reaction?

CAVETT: I warn you that it will give you a bit of a jolt when you see the head of the free world say about you, "How can we screw him?" He found a way to screw me, and I didn't find out until later.

The great un-indicted co-conspirator there in his lick spittle, Haldeman, came up with the idea of auditing my entire staff. But I didn't find out about it until years later, when one or two people happened to spill it to each other, and it hurt some of them a lot.

But the great football player from Yorba Linda, Whittier College, loved illegally punishing people with the IRS. And that was part of his fun.

You know, he was a brilliant man. That's the sad thing about him. A friend of mine saw him appear before the Supreme Court and said that he was stunning, the power of his mind. But now we have Sarah Palin, so --

KURTZ: Well, I've concluded that good satire often has to have a message, and sometimes that message offends people. You, I presume, would agree? We're coming up on a break.

CAVETT: Oh, I would. Do I come back after the break?

KURTZ: No, this is it for you, Dick.

CAVETT: Oh, no. This is it?

KURTZ: We would be happy to have you back. Dick Cavett, thanks so much for joining us.

CAVETT: Well, OK. Thank you. I've enjoyed every second of this.

KURTZ: Same here.

Still to come on this program, "The Bachelorette" is now a launching pad for a news career. Former CNN correspondent Michael Ware speaks out about war. And Fox News paints a Democratic Senate candidate as a Marxist.

Our "Media Monitor" straight ahead.


KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Monitor." And here's what I found to be a bit of a joke.

What's the best route to a television news job these days? Journalism school, working for a wire service, starting out as a producer? Well, in the case of the Fox station in San Diego, none of the above. You go on "The Bachelorette."


ALI FEDOTOWSKY, "THE BACHELORETTE": I really felt that I was going to end up with him in the end, and I just wanted to explore every option and make sure I was right so I could be absolutely confident at the end. And that's why I only wanted Roberto to be there in the end, because I was so sure that I had explored every other option and that he was the right guy for me.


KURTZ: Yes, that little reality show gig landed Ali Fedotowsky a spot on the Fox 5 News team. The same station, by the way, runs a feature on weather forecasters's Chrissy Russo's outfit of the day. There are a lot of them.

And the following I call troubling.

Michael Ware was one of the most familiar faces on CNN, reporting from war zones in that loud Australian accent. He has now left the network and is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after having witnessed the horrors of war.

This week, in an interview that aired on Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where it got more specific, he says that in 2007, he witnessed and filmed an atrocity, one involving a teenage boy in an Iraqi village who was carrying a weapon.

One of the soldiers, Ware says, shot the boy in the back of the head. The correspondent says that over the next 20 minutes, he watched the teenager die and was stunned by how inured he had become to violence like the soldiers around him. Ware also says that CNN decided the footage was too graphic to put on the air.

Now, television networks make those decisions all the time, but if the footage of soldiers shooting a teenager was considered too raw to broadcast, why wasn't the story aired without pictures? Isn't shooting someone in the back of a head a potential war crime? Did CNN have any responsibility to report this shooting to military authorities?

I wanted to put those questions to CNN executives, but the network declined to make anyone available for an interview. Instead, its press office issued a brief statement.

"CNN often has to make calls about which disturbing images are necessary to tell a story and which are too graphic. These are always challenging, and the subject of reasoned editorial the debate. On this occasion, we decided not to show an Iraqi insurgent dying with fatal wounds."

Now, maybe CNN made the right call. Maybe there were reasons not to report the story, even without pictures. But when a news organization won't answer questions, we have no way of knowing.

This one is about distortion. Now, the media have spent a lot of time kicking around Christine O'Donnell, in part over that "dabbled in witchcraft" sound bite she had on Bill Maher's show 11 years ago. But for some of our friends on Fox News, the focus has been more on O'Donnell's Democratic challenger in the Delaware Senate race, a county executive named Chris Coons.

Fox has a new label for him.


GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: Let's not talk about O'Donnell. Let's talk about the challenger, the Democratic challenger.


BECK: A Marxist.


BECK: I mean, he admitted it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, he admitted it.



HANNITY: During his undergraduate days, Coons wrote about the development of his ideology in his college newspaper. Now, the article was called, "Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist." And now some unpopular Democrats are coming out of the woodwork to support Delaware's bearded Marxist.


KURTZ: But it turns out this bearded Marxist business is bogus. Back in 1985 -- that would be 25 years ago -- Coons wrote the following for his college newspaper, "The Amherst Student," about spending a semester in Kenya: "My friends now joke that something about Kenya, maybe the strange diet or the tropical sun, changed my personality. Africa to them seems a catalytic converter that takes in clean-shaven, clear-thinking Americans and sends back bearded Marxists."

It was a joke, a clear and obvious joke. That's also a good description of those who are passing off this ancient article as evidence of some communist past.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.